While the 120 elected lawmakers in Florida’s House of Representatives have responsibility over Florida’s $90 billion budget, only a select few, holding coveted leadership positions, wield the real political power necessary to shape it.
By contrast, Mat Bahl, an unelected staffer who reports directly to House Speaker Chris Sprowls, has more experience working the levers of power in Tallahassee than even his term-limited boss.
Sprowls is, in fact, the third House Speaker to rely on Bahl’s services to guide him through his brief, two-year term. Appointed by Sprowls as chief of staff in 2020, Bahl held the same job a decade earlier, guiding then-Speaker Dean Cannon out of the tumultuous post-recession economy that decimated Florida’s state budget.
After a brief hiatus, Bahl returned to the Speaker’s Office in 2016 to reprise his role as chief of staff to Richard Corcoran. And prior to all of those stints, Bahl also served in lesser staff roles for other House speakers, including Marco Rubio and Larry Cretul.
With that much institutional knowledge and experience, Tallahassee insiders say Bahl has more power and influence inside the state’s House chamber than most of the legislative body’s own elected members.
And several of the lobbyists and political operatives interviewed for this article suggest that because of his institutional knowledge of the legislative apparatus, he wields more raw power than Sprowls himself.
“Mat Bahl is the guy you have to win over if you want to get things done, not Chris Sprowls,” said one Tallahassee lobbyist who declined to be identified for this story. “But the craziest thing is, unless you’re a super insider, you’ve probably never heard of the guy.”
Indeed, Bahl is notoriously reclusive. His social media footprint is virtually non-existent. Finding a photo of him online is nearly impossible.
Even when he was profiled last year for Influence Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in Florida Politics, a feature that is noted as much for its photography as its other content, Bahl’s profile is the only one that doesn’t include a picture.
True to form, Bahl declined to respond to questions for this story through a House spokeswoman.
By all accounts, Bahl is a brilliant political tactician. After graduating from Florida State University, he earned a law degree from Duke University, and has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1996. He was once described by his Senate counterpart, Kathy Mears, as a “master of 3D chess.”
“In a world where many people think they are the smartest person in the room,” says Mears in the Influence Magazine profile, “Mat Bahl actually is.”
While most of Tallahassee’s political class maintains a healthy respect for Bahl, some who’ve worked with him suggest he’s got a darker, more manipulative side. No one was willing to speak on the record, citing Bahl’s notorious stance against any and all media attention.
“In politics, especially here in Florida, nobody survives that long at the top without some Machiavellian tendencies,” one political operative says. “Mat knows where the bodies are buried…figuratively speaking.”
In his role as chief of staff, Bahl controls and approves the House’s legislative agenda, making sure that Sprowls’ own priorities are tended to. He also negotiates the backroom trades and logistics between the House and Senate, all while serving as the ultimate gatekeeper to Sprowls. Controlling access to the House Speaker gives him leverage over other lawmakers and anyone else looking for a way to influence the direction of Florida’s future.
“He’s got a lot of influence, and he’s not afraid to use it,” says another lobbyist. “Sprowls probably doesn’t know half the things he’s up to, and that’s why he wants him around. Because Mat is willing to do the dirty work.”